Around a set of tables in a second-floor classroom at Annandale High School, students looked over the latest issue of the school newspaper, the A-Blast, and debated a question that even adults find troubling: Should someone no older than the students in that room face the possibility of execution?
The juniors and seniors in Alan Weintraut's journalism class Tuesday were trying to understand sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo and explain their varying opinions on his possible fate. They said the 17-year-old's alleged acts were so horrible, his fractured life so hard to comprehend, that age was the only thing they had in common with him.
It's an age that comes with an inherent double standard: As a not-quite-adult, you must pay taxes from a summer job, but you can't vote in an election. You can't buy a beer, but in Virginia and 21 other states, you can be eligible for the death penalty.
"We're trying to be in a society that's trying to keep us out," said Paul Gleason, a 16-year-old who said Malvo should be executed if he is found guilty.
Philippe Podhorecki thought Malvo's youth might have been one reason police felt they could interrogate the suspect by himself for six hours. "Because he was younger, they figured by isolating him, they were more likely to sway him and make him succumb to pressure," said Podhorecki, 17.
"What I'm not buying," said Gleason, "is this whole 'Well, he's 17, he's not responsible for his actions.' He knows the difference between right and wrong. I know not to go out and shoot people."
Edris Qarghah, 18, offered another perspective. "The younger you are, the more susceptible you are to other people's influence," he said. " . . . And coming from a broken family, it's reasonable to assume that he's not in the best emotional state."
"So you're justifying it," Gleason said.
"I'm not justifying it," Qarghah replied.
"Does killing him make us any better than him?" asked John Bernhardt, 17.
The possibility of the death penalty for Malvo became more vivid yesterday, when a Fairfax County judge unsealed a grand jury indictment charging the teenager as an adult with capital murder in the Oct. 14 slaying of Linda Franklin in a Home Depot parking lot.
While the entire Washington region lived with the dread of last fall's shootings, teenagers experienced it at a point in their lives when responsibility and privilege are being carefully doled out by parents and teachers. Everywhere were reminders that the control teenagers prize was slipping away: the drawn blinds in the locked-down classrooms; the canceled football games, pep rallies and field trips; the way that an adolescent badge of pride -- gassing up your own car -- suddenly put you at risk.
"The effect [the shootings] had on the area, it just screwed things up, not just for adults but for kids my age," said Peter Ward, 18 and a senior at St. Albans School in the District. "I think that regardless of age, what he did was so extreme, he does deserve the highest punishment possible."
Marissa Lowe, 17, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, sees it differently. The killings police attribute to Malvo and John Allen Muhammad were tragic, she said, but "the fact that [Malvo] could be sentenced to the death penalty is, I think, a tragedy, too."
"I'm 17. He's 17," she added. "If I did this, I could be killed. I think it is probably more of a sensitive issue to people my age, if they're thinking about it."
Like some adults, 17-year-old Ashley Moore, also a Blake senior, isn't sure what she thinks of Malvo's fate. "He was young in age, but he was not young in action. And that makes it difficult," she said.
Though state curriculum guidelines do not mandate any focus on the death penalty, high school teachers across the region have seen the Malvo case as an opportunity to take a tragic moment and turn it into a teachable moment. Some said it is especially appropriate in a school year that has included Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s pledge to lift Maryland's moratorium on executions and then-Gov. George Ryan's order emptying death row in Illinois.
This semester at Annandale, students in Fred Zuniga's five government classes were assigned to study the death penalty and write a 1,500-word term paper either in favor of or against capital punishment.
"If you look at all my students, it came out about 50-50," Zuniga said. "It was a very popular assignment because people really got into it. The best part was they talked to their parents about it."
Montgomery County students often learn about the death penalty in a required 10th-grade class students call "NSL," for national, state and local government. While the discussion of capital punishment is usually limited to a single class, the issue "can make for some pretty lively discussions," said Blake teacher Alison Jovanovic.
At Annandale, Qarghah explained how Malvo's age made him different from an adult, more deserving of a chance to live and a chance to change. "By the age of 40, a person is generally the person they're going to be for the rest of their lives," he said. "At the age of 17, he's still open to being influenced."
"I think, yes, the courts need to rehabilitate minors," countered Andrew Satten, 18. "But when they commit an act as atrocious as this, I don't see rehabilitation as being the sole purpose. I see justice as being the purpose." He thought Malvo deserved the death penalty.
What if they were on a jury of Malvo's peers -- his actual peers, a dozen teenagers sitting in judgment of the 17-year-old? Could they send him to death row?
"I don't think I'd want to make that decision," said Hayley Fletcher, 17. "But if it really came down to it, I think I could."